recent article on what recourse a comic or writer has if someone steals his jokes. The short answer: nothing. If you sue for copyright infringement it’ll cost all parties involved anywhere from $373,000 to $2.1 million. It better be one fucking great joke.
Stealing gags have been around since the beginning of time. The article cites an example. Milton Berle – notorious for stealing other people’s material – used this joke: “A man comes home and finds his best friend in bed with his wife. That man throws up his hands in disbelief and says, ‘Joe, I have to—but you?’ ”
Now compare that to this joke from the 4th century tome Philogelos, the world’s oldest-known joke book: “Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny,’ He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’ ”
Proof positive that Milton Berle was sixteen centuries old when he died. I will give him this; he improved the joke. The early version really explained the joke. What was with these people?
So if you can't take legal action, what’s to stop someone from pilfering jokes?
There is somewhat of a code between comedians (although enforcing it is probably laughable). If there’s a question of ownership over a particular joke, the comic that delivered it on TV first gets it. This seems unfair to me. Struggling comics don’t get on TV, while Robin Williams merely has to pick up the phone.
Comics tend to ostracize other comics who steal material. Jerry won’t let them ride in his car.
If the problem gets too severe some clubs blackball them. For poor Dane Cook that means he can only work in arenas.
You can always beat the shit out of the guy. Although, admittedly, not a lot of ex-Marines or former boxing champions go into comedy.
You can try to monitor your material and cut off the pipeline to plagiarists if you can find it. Before I had a blog I would review the Oscars and send it to everyone in my address book. One was a highly rated major market talk show host. I found out from several listeners that he was using my material the next morning and claiming it was his. That’s the last thing he ever received from me.
A recent study has determined that there is less joke stealing among comics now than the old Milton Berle days (of the 4th-20th centuries) and they conclude this informal “code” has made the difference. Personally, I think it’s the internet. Up until a decade ago it was possible for a comic to play clubs, work the circuit for years and no one other than drunks and fellow comics knew who he was. Now every comic is on Twitter, has a website, and clips of their stand up act is on YouTube. And all entries are dated. It’s much easier now to point fingers.
But fear not, comedy warriors. I have the answer. I know how to end joke stealing. Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists. You may say, “C’mon, that’s not going to work.” Oh really? How do you think the big Hollywood studios put an end once and for all to film piracy? I rest my case.
And this is my idea. Don’t you go stealing it.